Black Bear Charging Eastward
Twenty-three years after starting the company with $15,000 that came, in part, from selling his boat, Black Bear Diner CEO and co-founder Bruce Dean never thought he would be here at the helm of a successful brand that’s suddenly breaking out and epitomizing the American Dream.
“We never figured we were going to be what we are, and thank goodness for the customers that walk into our door every day,” he said on stage of the first day of the Franchise Times Finance & Growth Conference in Las Vegas. “Every customer means something.”
At an event that’s often described as speed dating for the business world, Dean’s backstory and personal approach to the brand stood out from the pack as he outlined Black Bear’s plans for infilling in its natural habitat along the West Coast, but also starting to move east as the brand finds greater traction in a casual dining market that’s often designed as challenging.
The Mount Shasta, California-based diner concept opened 21 new locations in 2017 and is on track to add 21 more this year, at a minimum, with AUVs of $2.6 million—"which may not seem like a lot,” he added, before noting that in family dining it represents the very top of the industry.
Striking out into the heartland with a new location in Oklahoma City, Dean said that location was particularly meaningful for the brand’s leadership team, as it marks the brand’s farthest-flung location, which will act as a hub as Black Bear expands in the coming years.
Compared with other diner concepts that are more heavily weighted toward breakfast, Black Bear’s three dayparts are split with 32 percent at breakfast, 37 percent over lunch and 31 percent at dinner. “In most family dining, that isn’t the way it works,” he said.
Like many brands in recent years, Black Bear attracted the attention of private equity with the 2016 partnership inked with PWP Growth Equity that is fueling the brand’s eastward push.
“I give these talks occasionally,” he said in closing. “Family dining is often the poor stepchild of the industry … but the reality is over $13 billion of business is done in family dining every year and I believe there’s a huge white space for us.”